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The Texas Treat With a Juicy Tale

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I should not have been surprised. I've spent countless hours at the Minnesota State Fair, and I lived in Texas for seven years. So I'm familiar with deep-fried pickles on a stick and with the independent thinking of the residents of the Lone Star State.

Still, the Pickle Sickle caught me off guard. An ice pop made of frozen pickle juice doesn't sound like something people would be clamoring for. Then again, in an era when candy companies compete for bragging rights over whose flavor is the sourest, perhaps the appeal of a little pucker power makes sense.

Sure enough, Pickle Sickles are selling at the rate of about 20,000 a month, mostly through the Internet. Who knew?

John Howard knew, but that's because he created them. Though the degree of popularity has surprised him, Howard, 43, knew he was on to something when he began freezing leftover jarred pickle juice at his roller skating rink and arcade in Seguin, Texas, a year ago.

The Web site for the Pickle Sickle plays up the product's "bizarre" and "crazy" aspects, but the idea actually isn't so strange. People in that part of the state -- Seguin is about 35 miles from San Antonio -- have always drunk pickle juice. "There are a lot of closet pickle drinkers in South Texas," Howard says. "We're trying to get everyone out of the closet."

At trade shows, he says, people -- generally over 50 -- tell him they used to drink big swigs of pickle juice out of jars when they were kids. "Their moms would hit them over the head to get them to stop," he says.

But freezing it? Howard got the idea from his daughter-in-law. She had eaten the frozen stuff as a child at church camp, where the counselors put the juice in ice cube trays with toothpicks.

He was already selling pickles at the roller rink's snack bar, so he started to freeze his leftover pickle juice -- really the brine from the pickle jars -- and sell that, too. "We sold 200 to 300 every Friday and Saturday night," he says. Then they began to run out of pickle juice.

Because they think big in Texas, Howard got a "giant hydraulic press" last October to process the pickles. "We're the first to squeeze our own pickle juice," he says. They squeeze about 10 gallons -- about 150 pickles -- at a time and have nothing left at the end but the skins. No more leftover brine: Pickle Sickles are made only from freshly pressed pickles.

At the roller rink, 9- to 16-year-olds were the main Pickle Sickle customers. But older people like pickle juice, too. A Pickle Sickle rep in Southern California is trying to sell the product to assisted-living communities. "We have a weird demographic," Howard says. "It's either kids or people 50 and above."

And pregnant women, naturally. (Pickles and ice cream. Think about it.)

There are now two flavors: original and jalapeño. The original tastes just like a pickle. The jalapeño nearly took my head off. My 96-year-old father liked both.

They tried cherry and lemon-lime at the rink but haven't yet put them on the market. "The kids loved the salty, vinegary cherry concoction," Howard says, but he prefers jalapeño.

As he started to promote Pickle Sickles nationally, Howard got out of the roller rink business. "I just didn't have time to do both anymore," he says. Before buying the rink, Howard was a plumber. "I'm still trying to find my niche," he says.

If purchased through the Internet (a box of 16 is $17.95 at http://www.picklesickle.com), the two-ounce packets come unfrozen and are shelf stable for six months. You just put them in the freezer. Howard says some people drink the unfrozen juice out of the package.

There's a good possibility Pickle Sickles will be on ice cream trucks from New England to New Jersey this summer, Howard says. Outside of Texas, that is the area where Pickle Sickles have become most popular. Go figure.

Besides on the Internet, Pickle Sickles sell through booster clubs, at H-E-B (Here Everything's Better) markets throughout Texas and in some schools. Yes, schools: six in Texas and one in Oklahoma.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the sale of Pickle Sickles in schools. Because, wouldn't you know it, Pickle Sickles are a health food. The frozen pickle pops, advertised as "a healthy alternative to sugary frozen pops," are fat-free and contain less than one gram of sugar. A Pickle Sickle has only three calories. The pickle pop promoters tout other health benefits. They quote an Arizona State University study showing that vinegar, such as that used in pickling, combats insulin spikes after a high-carb meal -- useful information for diabetics. They also claim that pickling spices fight bacteria.

Carol Johnston, chairwoman of the department of nutrition at Arizona State University and author of the study, has never eaten a Pickle Sickle. But researchers there have given them to study participants to test the insulin effect, and "it looks like it's working," she says. Although more data analysis is necessary, she says, frozen pickle juice may be a good way to get people to eat their vinegar.

Which brings us to the so-called pickle juice game. In 2000, the Philadelphia Eagles played the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener in Dallas. The temperature was well over 100 degrees. The Eagles, however, appeared surprisingly refreshed and whomped the Cowboys, 41-14.

Some credit for their victory was given to the pickle juice their trainer had them drink to stay hydrated and avoid cramps. Since then, pickle juice drinks have appeared on the market as sports aids. Proving that you can't fool a Texan twice, one juice is endorsed by Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

As food, pickle juice is good in just about everything, Howard says. I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's true that many Southern potato salad recipes call for it. My mother always saved the juice in the pickle jar and added cut-up carrots, celery sticks, cucumbers and other raw vegetables. After a couple of days of marinating they tasted pretty good.

I've heard that pickle juice makes a good marinade for meat, improves bottled barbecue sauce, is nice in gazpacho and spices up a bloody mary. I've also been told it's good for a hangover and for azalea bushes.

Howard recommends adding pickle juice to martinis, which makes sense, since a dirty martini calls for olive brine. Howard even cooks with pickle juice, making dishes such as his pickle pop lemon-dill chicken: chicken breast, a two-ounce unfrozen pickle pop (to deglaze the pan), fresh-squeezed lemon juice, fresh dill and butter. Capers are optional.

The briny nectar by itself, of course, is the purest expression of the form. But if it tastes exactly like a dill pickle, why go to the trouble of freezing pickle juice? "Because it's a heckuva lot more fun to do it our way," Howard says.

Bonny Wolf, host of NPR's "Kitchen Window" podcast and author of "Talking With My Mouth Full," can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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